Montessori Moments

September 20, 2009

The Relativity of Right and Wrong

Five year-old Stacy and I were working with the geometric cabinet.  As we went through the language lesson involving several shapes, it became clear that she was having a hard time telling the difference between the oval and the ellipse.  Since she can read, I introduced the geometry cabinet classified cards, which consist of the following:

– Cards showing the shapes of the geometric cabinet (the shapes are in blue and the background is in yellow, just like the cabinet)

– Cards where the names of the shapes are written (ellipse, oval, curvilinear triangle, etc.)

– Cards where the definitions of the shapes are written (“an egg-shaped figure with curved lines that narrow at the top” would be the definition of oval)

– Control cards that show each blue shape with its corresponding name and definition on one long yellow card, so the child can check her work when she’s finished

I handed Stacy the card that showed the blue oval, and then invited her to find the label for the shape.  She chose the label that said “ellipse” and placed it next to the oval.  I then invited her to find the corresponding definition, and she chose the one that defined an ellipse.  Without pointing out her mistake, I gave her the card that showed the blue ellipse.  She chose the label and definition for “oval” and placed them next to the card with the elliptical shape.

At this point, she had labeled and defined an oval as an ellipse, and vice-versa.  Hoping the control cards would help her see her mistakes and understand the difference between the shapes, I invited her to check her work.  I pointed to the card that said oval, which she had placed next to the elliptical shape, and asked her to find the matching control card.

After three years in Montessori, Stacy was familiar with the use of control cards, which allow the children to check their work and make corrections without having to depend on an adult to point out mistakes (we call this “control of error”, and it is present in most authentic Montessori materials).  She shuffled through the cards, found the one that corresponded to the oval, and placed it below the cards she had paired.

I saw her eyes shifting several times from her work to the control card and back.  It was clear that, while the name and definition of her cards matched the control card, the shape on the control card (an oval) was different from the shape on her work card (an ellipse).  She repeated the process with the control card for the ellipse, and again looked from one card to the other.

“How’s it going?” I gently inquired.

“Something’s wrong,” she remarked.

“Oh?” I asked, relieved that she had found the mistake in her work.  “What’s the matter?”

Stacy looked up from her cards.  “This card,” she pointed to the oval control card, “is wrong.”

My eyebrows popped up.  “Really?” I asked, intrigued by her perspective.

She continued, unphased.  “Yeah.  If you give me a blue marker, we can change this shape,” she pointed to the oval on the control card, “to look like this.”  She pointed to the ellipse on her work cards.

I gently explained that we couldn’t color on the control cards, because they were designed to help us check our work, and asked her if she wanted to look at the cards again.  She looked back at her work and insisted that the control card was wrong.   Without pressing any further, I suggested that we put away the work because it was almost time to go home.

I didn’t dare tell her that she had made a mistake: that’s not my role as a guide.  I will simply continue to expose her to the two shapes in different situations throughout the school year, until at some point she will have her little “aha” moment.

I marvel at the strength of her convictions; discovering the world in this manner creates much more awareness and self-reliance than depending on others to show us the way, and helps us appreciate the relativity of right and wrong.

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